North Korea

South Korea to conduct radiation exposure tests on North Korean escapees


Exactly 881 escapees who resettled in the South lived near the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site

South Korea to conduct radiation exposure tests on North Korean escapees

People in Seoul, South Korea, watch a television report on North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, May 2018.

South Korea has announced it will conduct radiation exposure testing on people who once lived near North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site prior to escaping the country and resettling in the South. 

There are 881 people who fit the criteria for testing because they fled North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006, Lee Hyo-jung, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told reporters on Friday. The ministry will select candidates for testing from among those who consent, she said.

The ministry is concerned that radiation may have leaked from the site in northeastern North Korea after six underground nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017, putting people who lived near the facility at risk.

It previously tested 40 North Korean escapees who lived near Punggye-ri in 2017 and 2018, detecting traces of exposure in 9 of them, but said no causal relationship could be determined, and there were no cases of radiation exposure that required medical treatment.

“At the time, there was no control group, and the number of samples was limited,” said Lee. “There was insufficient information to identify confounding variables such as smoking and heavy metal poisoning, making it difficult to generalize the results. We are pushing ahead with a full-scale investigation to obtain meaningful results.”

The exposure test will be conducted in parallel with a general health checkup for the escapees, she said.

Potential risk

Hundreds of thousands of people, including in South Korea, Japan and China, are potentially at risk from radioactive materials from the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, a recent report by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group NGO said.

The report, published Monday, showed the risk of radioactive materials in water leaking from the site, by mapping the possible dissemination to people living nearby, then spreading through agricultural and marine products smuggled to China, then possibly exported to South Korea and Japan.  

The report estimated that if 25% of the 1.08 million people living in eight cities and counties near Punggye-ri testing site were exposed, then the number of affected people would be 270,000. If 50% are affected, the number jumps to 540,000.

“While there has been a tendency to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program solely as a security issue, this report is significant for confirming that North Korea’s nuclear tests threaten the right to life and the right to health of not only the North Korean people, but also of those in South Korea and other neighboring countries,” said Hubert Younghwan Lee, executive director of the Transitional Justice Working Group.

Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, the group’s legal analyst, urged South Korea to test the 881 escapees who lived near Punggye-ri  and said North Korea should launch an investigation after results are available. 

According to the Ministry of Unification, around 33,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, but arrivals have decreased significantly since 2020, likely due to border restrictions in North Korea and China during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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